Tag Archives: RJ Cutler

American High

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 11, New York: Like The War Room, another story about technology and access, and also another story brought to us in part by RJ Cutler. American High was a short-lived television show in 2000 that featured a dozen high schoolers from a Chicago suburb. They were followed by film crews, interviewed by producers, and their relatively familiar teenaged stories were told through pop music-infused reality techniques. It was a style that was already begin explored on MTV in True Life. But Cutler and his crew introduced a new element.

The students were all enrolled in a video production class and were taught by Cutler’s producers how to film TV-ready video diaries. Then they gave them all cameras. Without the mediation of the interview producer, these teens would unload their emotions into small DV cameras they took with them everywhere they went. Late at night, alone in their bedrooms, the safest possible place in the world to process out loud, they would just hit record and talk. It is that material that makes this series revolutionary. The evolution of technology to a point where broadcast-quality video can come out of a camera that can be held and operated by a high schooler allows for unprecedented, unfettered access to the most intimate of monologues. It’s brilliant.

This same technological window helped launch my early career. I came of age with DV tape, shot mountains of it on Sony PD150s— prosumer cameras that shot good-enough video, all of which could be edited on a home computer with Final Cut Pro. Mine was the first generation of digital producer-shooter-editors. And through it all I was completely in love with the video diaries used here in American High. I’ve borrowed this technique time and again in my career. I gave cameras to high schoolers to video diary about the 2004 election. I gave a camera to a Marine who was headed to Iraq. As my career progressed I found myself more and more focused on access over production training, building a program for documentary citizen journalism for Current TV. No matter how great my field reporting was, it would almost always be trumped by a subject turning the camera around and talking directly into it.

American High was a blip. The other techniques used in the series— montage, pop music, slickly produced interviews— that feels more like MTV today. And that’s the way the industry went. More 16 and Pregnant and less True Life. With that context, American High is harder to watch today. The music sears. The poor video quality just feels unpolished. The genius moments of intimacy shine less brightly. And now that intimacy is everywhere. Teenagers have been recording from their bedrooms and posting it to YouTube for about ten years now.

Some kind soul uploaded every episode of American High to Daily Motion.

The War Room

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 11, New York: One of the great all-time documentaries, The War Room is the benchmark political insider tale of the 1990s. What’s the next evolution after giving reporters enough access to write a tell-all book? Let them make a documentary. So DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (and, notably, RJ Cutler) followed George Stephanopoulos and James Carville around behind the scenes of the first Clinton campaign and you see their genius at work.

This film is pretty revolutionary in terms of political reporting. There is this tiny window of time in which it’s technologically feasible to tell a story like this, before it’s a cable-led news cycle makes it politically infeasible. As a documentary, it’s pretty staid vérité. The only time you even notice the camera’s there is in the one scene where you are awkwardly following Carville and Mary Matlin out to the parking lot, shot from down by their feet as if the camera’s being snuck along. Yet the access alone, the unguarded moments of Carville’s and Stephanopoulos’ wheeling and dealing make it genius.

There are two things that stuck out in a contemporary viewing. First is that this is the bones of The West Wing. It’s exactly how Sorkin originally envisioned it: the candidate in the background and the operators up front. It’s process over substance and that is plenty compelling enough to tell a whole story. The second is watching James Carville give a little speech accusing Roger Ailes spreading conspiracy theories that would be as much at home in 2015 as it is in 1992. Same Carville, same Ailes. A lot hasn’t changed since 1992.

The War Room is incredible for its unguarded access. But it is an accident of timing. The right moment in the evolution of political news. It’s the timing that’s the genius.

Watch The War Room thanks to the internet.